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Speech by Peter Robinson to DUP Annual Conference, (27 November 2010)

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Text: Peter Robinson ... Page compiled: Martin Melaugh

Speech by Peter Robinson, then Leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), to the DUP Annual Conference, Belfast, (27 November 2010)


"Who would have believed it a decade ago?

Here we are at the end of 2010, a DUP-led administration at Stormont, the IRA off the stage and Sinn Fein signed up to policing.

After decades of conflict, Northern Ireland is moving in the right direction.

Northern Ireland’s constitutional position in the United Kingdom is secure, our relationship with the Republic is better than ever, nobody is seriously talking about a united Ireland and the political institutions have more widespread support than at any point in the history of the Province.

That is the bedrock for peace and stability.

You don’t need to take my word for it: just ask yourselves, is Northern Ireland better off now than it was twenty years ago?

Investment is coming back, new jobs are being created and there’s a real future for our young people and a reason for them to stay.

It hasn’t been plain sailing and there’s still an enormous task ahead – but solid foundations have been laid for Northern Ireland’s second century.

And our future is once again in our own hands.

We’re no longer reliant on others to protect our interests, no longer frustrated by governments negotiating over our heads, behind our backs and against our interests or by policies set from London and strongly influenced by Dublin.

Instead, we’re setting our own priorities and direction. We're making decisions in Northern Ireland for the people of Northern Ireland.

That didn’t happen accidentally, but because of the hard work of many people in this room today and the trust that was placed in us.

I also want to personally thank you for the support that you have given me these past twelve months.

I’ll not deny that for me this has been my most testing year.

But the real test of any person is not how they stand up in a gentle breeze but how they weather the battering when the relentless gales blow.

When I was elected leader of this party two and a half years ago I said that there was no greater honour that this party could bestow.

I was wrong.

It has been superseded by the love, friendship and support I received from colleagues in the party over the last year.  That loyalty can never be fully repaid.

It is a tribute to the character and faithfulness of all of you and I will never forget it.

I don’t believe in holding office for its own sake. I never have and never will.

And I will always remember that no single person is more important than this party.

Leaders will come and leaders will go, and for my part, I want to play a full part in completing the work that we started and create a legacy for the next generation of which we can all be proud.

That’s what drove us on during the years in opposition, through the years when we stood virtually alone, through the years of danger and conflict and through the years when we swam against the popular political tide.

And it is what drove us on night after long night in Hillsborough Castle earlier this year.

Even in those most difficult times, we were, step by step, moving Northern Ireland forward.

While many were writing us off just look at what we achieved.

We avoided the collapse of the institutions, we secured the future of the Assembly and completed the devolution of policing and justice. 

And then we defied the critics, stood on our positive agenda for the future and maintained our position as the voice of unionism.

The dark clouds that formed over Dromore in 2008 and which still persisted after I became leader at the European Election in 2009 have now lifted.

In the upheaval and intense process leading up to the restoration of devolution in 2007 we lost our close contact with the electorate.  The link to our support base was something that had always been a central feature of our politics.

But we have found it again.  We have re-connected.

It was a painful lesson but we listened and we learned.

We took on board what people were saying and we are the better for it.

But now, Dromore and Europe are just memories and experiences that have strengthened us.

In the most unfavourable circumstances, overall the General Election result was a remarkable triumph for the DUP.

Given all that had happened, retaining eight seats, maintaining our position as the party with most MPs from Northern Ireland and receiving more votes than all the other unionist parties added together was a great effort.

Thirteen years ago we returned just two Members of Parliament. Today, we stand as the only unionist party in the House of Commons - speaking for and representing Northern Ireland in our national parliament.

Not bad for a really difficult year.

And the real lesson is this.

We stood together.  We remained united.  We kept our focus.  We didn't allow others to set our agenda.  Though in the line of fire we responded by giving strong and sound leadership.

While in the past others crumbled and divided under pressure we bound ourselves together, stronger and more determined than ever.

And you can be absolutely certain that whenever the next Westminster election comes our number one target will be returning East Belfast to DUP hands.

It may be your DUP candidate's name on the ballot paper and DUP leaders whose faces you see on TV, but our success has come as a direct result of all the work you do, whether it's knocking on doors, putting up posters, raising money, tramping the streets or  the thousand other tasks that are performed. The DUP's success is your success.

I want to congratulate our MPs and in particular Jim Shannon and Ian Paisley junior who were elected for the first time. Let me also pay tribute to Nigel who is heading up the team at Westminster.  Our interests are well and truly represented by Nigel and our team in Parliament.

Incidentally, having been elected in West Belfast, I see that Gerry Adams is now heading off to County Louth to contest the next Irish General Election.  He has announced that he will stand down from Westminster to do so.  I wonder does Gerry know it's not a simple matter of handing in a resignation.  In order to stand down, an MP has to disqualify himself by being appointed to an Office of Profit under the Crown. 

Two such positions are available - Gerry can become the Crown Steward and Bailiff of either the Chiltern Hundreds or the Manor of Northstead.   As he would, thereby, be the Queen's servant and in the Queen's pay he is disqualified from Parliament. 

Just you watch, if past form is any guide, by the time the Louth election campaign starts he'll be denying that the Queen's servant and appointee.

Mr Chairman, as this Assembly term enters its final months I want to pay tribute to all those who have served at Stormont over the past three and a half years.  They have worked diligently in the Assembly chamber, the committees, in their constituencies and more widely for the party.

I especially want to thank all those who have served in Ministerial Office.

Nigel, Gregory, Edwin, Nelson, Sammy, Arlene and of course Ian - or should I say Lord Bannside - congratulations Ian, but, it'll not stop people still referring to you as "the big man".

And let us not forget our three junior Ministers, Ian Junior, Jeffrey and Robin - and all our committee chairs and other post holders who have carried heavy responsibilities on our behalf.

Together you are the most formidable and able team in the Assembly. 

Not only have we a remarkable Assembly team but this has been a remarkable Assembly term.

We've had no shortage of difficulties and challenges but while others doubted and dithered the DUP delivered.

Here in Northern Ireland next March, for the first time in forty years, we will complete a full four-year term of devolution without suspensions and without the institutions collapsing. 

But we all know that while it’s a good start; it's not enough.

It represents the foundation for our future achievements.  It is not the height of our aspirations.

There are those who criticise the Assembly and the Executive for how it operates.

I know the flaws and I know the problems.

I will continue to work to make things better but I would not for a second trade the institutions that we have for a return to Direct Rule.

For us the present arrangements are a transitional phase to a more normal form of democracy for Northern Ireland. 

That's why we insisted at St Andrews, and had it incorporated in law, that the next Assembly would bring forward proposals on moving to a better form of devolved government.

That’s a vital piece of work for the next mandate. 

And only the DUP can succeed in making the sort of changes that are needed.

But I am not prepared to throw away all the progress that has been made by crashing the present institutions.  There are those within unionism who want to tear Stormont down.  They openly announced their intentions.  They have said, "Send us to the Assembly so that we can build a bulkhead sufficient to cause it to fall apart."

Then they discovered that the community didn't support their wrecking declaration so they now seek to camouflage it behind weasel words like - "We've a positive agenda. Stormont is broken and we're going to fix it."

Fix it!  These people are wreckers.  We've heard it all before.  They want to enter Stormont with a ballot paper in one hand and a Kango hammer in the other.

The fall of Stormont and a return to Dublin Rule is not just a risk which might flow from their policies; it’s their intention.

I'm not prepared to gamble in the hope that something better might turn up after further decades of negotiations.

There is no easy or quick-fix solution.

It’s a dangerous illusion.

Let's be clear they want to pull Stormont down and end devolution.

And don’t be deluded into believing that even a different system of government would be an answer or solution to all of our problems. 

We will still have to deal with the people that the nationalist community elect.

We must tackle the form of government at Stormont not by ripping up all that has been achieved but by working together, with others, to create a better way of doing things.

It’s not the easy way but it’s the only way that will work.

And let's be clear, people don’t want to study the mechanics of government; they want to see government resolving the problems they face.  They want results.

Stormont has underpinned the peace and stability that we have achieved.

Those who criticise the Assembly forget how far we have come or what has actually been achieved.

More often than not all you will hear on the media from Stormont is arguing and bickering.

There is an old saying that no news is good news but for some in our media good news is no news.

It’s attractive for the media to report clashes and divisions between parties around the Executive table – and to be fair the parties have given them some material to work with – but we must tell the story of what has been achieved.

There has been too much petty point scoring at Stormont, but despite all that, we have made valuable and tangible progress. 

Is it any wonder that people struggle to tell you what Stormont has achieved when we don't sufficiently articulate it ourselves?

So, in case you have forgotten or never heard it before, let me record just a handful of the things we have achieved.

  • We’ve provided free travel on public transport to everyone over 60 – the most generous scheme in the whole of the UK – in fact there’s now over 60,000 smart-passes in circulation and 5 1/2 million free journeys have been made since the scheme was started.
  • We have frozen the Regional Rate helping 750,000 households and we deferred Water Charges for the entire Assembly term – giving Northern Ireland by far the lowest household taxes in the entire United Kingdom.
  • We have given a 20% discount on their rates to every single person over 70 living alone.
  • We have introduced a Small Business Rate relief scheme providing £8 million help to 16,000 small businesses.
  • We have capped manufacturing rates at 30% - helping 4,000 businesses and protecting thousands of jobs.
  • We’ve introduced free prescriptions for everyone in Northern Ireland – they’re not available in England.
  • By working with the last Government we secured the single largest ever investment to Northern Ireland by supporting Bombardier’s £520m investment for the new C-series – with the potential to create over 800 jobs and more in the supply chain.
  • We have reformed planning policy in the countryside.
  • In difficult economic times, when heating prices were escalating, we allocated £15 million to support 100,000 households on pension credit and income support.
  • Because of the peace and political stability we have brought jobs and significant investment from abroad. Our visits to the US have delivered substantial inward investment. And there’s more to come.
  • In addition, following our visits to the US, Universal Studios filmed a multi-million pound movie in Belfast and even today US Television Giant HBO is filming a new series in Northern Ireland bringing millions of pounds into our economy and hundreds of jobs for our community.
  • In the last three years we made growing the economy the Executive’s priority and Invest Northern Ireland secured more than £21/2 billion of investment commitments and £1/2 billion in annual salaries; promoted over fifteen thousand new jobs; safeguarded over five thousand existing jobs; and supported over eight thousand new local business starts.
  • Earlier this month we announced 500 new jobs brought to Northern Ireland by Citi group adding to the 900 jobs they have already located here.
  • In September we opened offices for the New York Stock Exchange, which will bring four hundred new jobs.
  • And because of investment by the Executive, Northern Ireland now has a faster telecoms link to New York than California has - as a result of the £25 million Project Kelvin.
  • Capital investment in our vital infrastructure increased to £1.7 billion last year. This compares to just £700 million under Direct Rule.
  • With this investment we replaced over 530 buses at a cost of £74 million, reducing the age of the fleet from 12 to 6 years.
  • As DRD Minister I bought 38 new trains - the first new trains for decades.  Now we plan to introduce a further 20 new trains by 2013, the first of these will come into service next year.
  • We have completed or widened vast stretches of motorway, dual and single carriageway.
  • And for my fellow cyclists we have even provided 82km of new cycle lanes and also 62km of new footway.
  • Over eighteen hundred new homes were provided for social tenants last year, the highest number for a decade.
  • We have improved the schools estate through investing around £500million and despite the wishes of the Minister for Education we have secured the future of academic selection.
  • On the tourist front we have contributed to the £100 million Titanic Signature Project - a landmark building which will be completed by 2012 and work has started on the new Giants Causeway Visitor Centre.
  • In the area of health we have invested in the £33m South Wing Development at Altnagevin, a new £270m acute hospital in Enniskillen, a new £64m hospital in Down, a new £9m trauma and orthopaedic facility in Craigavon Area Hospital and £17m of capital investment in 60 new ambulances.

And that's just a sample of what we've done.  It's also a start of what we need to do to help rebuild Northern Ireland. While all of this has been achieved, the first term has been about building the base camp from which we will, step by step, reach the summit.

And there's a massive job of work to do.

And at whatever we do we will act responsibly.  That’s why this week we have been working intensely to agree a budget not just for one year but for the next four years.

We will keep your household bills down and invest for the future.  We will focus our spending on health, education and the police.   We will maintain our key priority of growing the economy and we will pay special attention to those in our society who are hurting most from the recession.

With the Conservative imposed cuts it hasn’t been easy, but that’s when a local Executive with local people matters most.

We didn’t create the global economic downturn, but we have to live with the consequences.

We don’t ask for special treatment; all we ask, after 40 years of conflict, is a fair chance to compete and to rebuild our economy.

As everyone knows the Republic of Ireland is facing extremely difficult economic circumstances.  It is not a time here or there, for politicians to be playing party politics with peoples' lives and livelihoods.  As a unionist I sincerely want their difficulties to be resolved.  Make no mistake about it we have a selfish strategic and economic interest in this matter.

I know people in the Republic get very defensive about anything that looks as if their independence is being curtailed.  But can I say this - if you take economic advice from the IMF it's not a disaster;  it's a disaster if you take economic advice from Gerry Adams. 

Although to be fair to him - he does bring a different perspective to the banking issue.

Early next year we will be laying out our agenda for the next term of the Assembly.

It will set out our goals for the next four years.

Even in difficult economic times we can make a real difference.

This is a new era in politics and Northern Ireland has a lot to offer.

The election in May will be a critical moment in our recovery.

The people of Northern Ireland have a choice to make.

Some would suggest that this election is only going to be about one thing - who the First Minister will be.  They could not be more wrong. Of course it's vital the DUP remain the largest party and we retain the First Minister's post but it's about much more than that. This election is about the future direction of Northern Ireland.

Sinn Fein’s political agenda is very different to ours.

Where we can make common cause to create jobs or improve the lives of people, we will do so.

But where there are real differences of principle or policy – we will hold our ground.

We want to see Northern Ireland moving forward, together, for everyone.

And the question at the election will be, who do you believe can best take the big decisions on your behalf? Who is capable of negotiating a positive outcome in your interests?

Co-operating when it is possible, compromising when it is beneficial, and standing firm when it is a matter of principle.

We are the strong and responsible unionist voice.

This is not a time to be a prisoner of the past. You will not win today's battles using the tactics and tools of yesteryear.
We must find 21st century solutions to today’s challenges.

We can't pretend that things haven't changed.

Our values and core beliefs remain constant but we must adapt to present needs and the modern world.

We must shape the new political environment and reach out to an ever-expanding audience.

The issue of the constitutional status of Northern Ireland has been settled for as far as one can see into the future.

That battle has been fought and won.

Against that settled backcloth let us focus on the people’s real everyday agenda.

The SDLP leader tells us her number one priority is a united Ireland. Northern Ireland is facing an economic crisis.  Our people are struggling to make ends meet.  Workers are anxious about their employment prospects.  Poverty levels are rising.  We are contending with massive cuts to our budget and Margaret Ritchie is chasing the moonbeam of a united Ireland.  She just doesn't get it.  -  Indeed, let me tell her, she wont get it!

Last week on the BBC Caitriona Ruane  said there's never been a better time to have a united Ireland.  What's she been smoking?

I see that "I'm a Celebrity get me out of here" is back on TV.  I have it on good authority the producer wants Caitriona on the show - not as a contestant but as one of those scary jungle trials.  She knows a bit about jungle trials.

Unionists have changed their view about Caitriona.  A few years ago unionists were angry at her for going off to Columbia - now they are angry because she didn't stay.

Both Margaret and Caitriona need to get real!  The constitutional future of Northern Ireland is settled. 

If anyone doubts that, I suggest they should examine what Gerry Adams' journey to Louth really means.  It is evidence that republicans have given up on a united Ireland - of course we will still get the same old rhetoric - but does anyone really believe that Gerry would be exiting Northern Ireland politics if he thought the constitutional issue was still active and in play?

Too often unionists are negative or defensive about Northern Ireland’s status but remember this - Gerry Adams leaves Northern Ireland politics, for pastures new, with his key ambition unfulfilled.

So my number one priority in the next Assembly term is getting people back to work, revitalising our economy, providing support for those in greatest need and providing every citizen with a better way of life.

That means growing the economy and providing opportunity for all.

It means providing a safe place in which to live and it means learning to live together.

That's the agenda people want to hear about and that's the agenda that will determine the peace and prosperity of our people.

The real question is how, together, we can achieve a shared society in Northern Ireland and how we create a better future for our children.

We must tackle, head-on, the causes of division.  Not just for some short term political gain but because it's the right thing to do.

I didn’t make a speech about shared education because I wanted a headline; I did it because I wanted to start a debate.  I wanted to start a debate in order to create momentum for change.  And I sought that process so that it might lead to a solution.

Let me, without any hint or trace of a hidden political motive, invite those who have a case to be heard, to sit down calmly, as part of a wide-ranging review of our present arrangements, to consider how we might move to a structure which ends the separation of children at a formative age when life patterns are set and life-long friendships are made.   Surely it is possible to have a rational discourse about this matter.  I'm willing to engage.  I hope others will have the courage to come forward.

Mr Chairman, it is almost seven years to the day, since we won the 2003 Assembly elections when the DUP took on the mantle as unionism’s largest party.  In every Province-wide election since then we have won more votes than any other unionist party.

This past decade has witnessed an amazing transformation in our fortunes.

Once we were seen as a party of protest, marginalised and isolated.

Then we were seen as a party of opposition, unfit to govern.

But today we are the party of the Union.  The party of progress.  The party of the future.  We are the party of Northern Ireland. 

We are not on the margins of politics but at the centre of government.

We take the responsible decisions while others play politics.

We seek to broaden our appeal while others turn inwards and away from the real challenges that lie ahead.

We face up to issues while others duck and weave.

That transformation did not happen by good fortune but by widening our support base and by adapting to meet today's needs.

As other parties retreat into themselves we must reach out to build an ever larger and stronger support base.

That's the way for us to grow and to prosper.

Having won the war; let's not lose the peace.

Let us not allow history to pass us by. 

Northern Ireland is changing.  We are in a new era.

Out of the ashes of conflict a new generation is emerging.

This generation considers the constitutional issue to be resolved and they just want a better Northern Ireland.

They are more interested in the future than the past.

While we will be forever vigilant on constitutional matters we need to be seen as the natural choice for this new generation if we are to shape politics for decades to come. 

That is the way for unionism to have real strength and influence.

The challenge for the DUP is to be able to command support from every part of the unionist community and from those more widely who support our forward-thinking policies. 

We must demonstrate that we are the party best able to deliver a better quality of life for everyone in Northern Ireland.

However, the programme for this party should not be established on the basis of the lowest common denominator of what the general unionist community believe but should be set on the basis of the highest common factor of what we can achieve.

We must not only be the largest unionist party in Northern Ireland we must be the party of Northern Ireland.

As a party we must be prepared to change to meet those challenges.

The old certainties have long since passed away, but in doing so, new opportunities have opened up.

There's nothing cushy about the new kind of politics that exists today. 

It takes us out of our comfort zone.

Making Stormont work involves compromise and it involves difficult choices. 

Northern Ireland has come a long way in the last few years.   It is virtually unrecognisable from what it was twenty years ago.

But we should not take the relative peace we have achieved for granted. 

There are still dissident republicans who are active and dangerous.

They undoubtedly have the potential to kill and to bomb, but they don't have the ability to destroy the progress that has been achieved.

Of all the Assembly’s achievements in the last four years none was more significant than the united reaction to the murder of the two soldiers and the police officer by dissident republicans in March 2009.

If there was ever a moment that I was sure that we had taken the right decision in entering government, that was it.

That was devolution at its strongest.

Every party in the Executive and Assembly was united as one in opposition and condemnation.

Unremarkable in any other part of the world but truly remarkable given what had gone before in Northern Ireland.

But peace alone does not bring reconciliation.

Conflict creates a damaging legacy and we must tackle that legacy.

The real victory for unionism is not about inflicting pain on our political opponents.  It's about creating a new Northern Ireland.  A Northern Ireland fair to all, in which everyone who lives here feels a part and wants to share in its future. 

We know dissident republicans can never achieve their goals but neither must we let them divert us from achieving ours.

Next May we will face new electoral tests for both the Assembly and Local Government.

We always say that the next election will be the most important one ever - and sometimes it's even true.

It certainly is this time.

Four years ago we reached a defining moment.

We had a decision to take.

Setting up Government wasn't the easy choice but it was the right choice.

No sensible person wants to go back to the bad old days.

At this election we will seek a mandate to continue the work we have begun.

The DUP is the party to defend the interests of unionism and advance the cause of Northern Ireland.

We are the first generation in a very long age who have a realistic prospect of shaping a harmonious and prosperous future. 

We have young people of whom we can be proud.

None more so than those who serve in our armed forces.

One of the great honours for me of the past year was going to visit the Irish Guards at their Windsor Barracks as they prepared for deployment to Afganistan.  I also considered it to be a great privilege to travel to Helmond Province to visit the Royal Irish Regiment during their last tour of duty in Afghanistan.

These young men from all backgrounds are an example to every one of us - prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice, not just for their country but in the cause of freedom.

Just as for many years brave soldiers came here to join with the police to defend democracy and protect us from terrorism, these soldiers have travelled half way around the world not only to defend us but to make a better life for people they don't even know.

More than ever, in the last few weeks we have seen the true nature and high cost of their dedication and we remember those who have lost their lives in the service of Queen and country.

Those who face terrorism - whether at home or overseas - are more than our defenders, they are our heroes.

Mr Chairman, last month I attended an investment conference hosted by US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton in Washington which was attended by potential investors of some of the United States - indeed the world's - biggest companies.

The distance from home often gives the clearest perspective of what we have to offer as a community.

For this  was not just a sales pitch given by our politicians.

Our strongest advocates were US business leaders who had already invested in Northern Ireland and wanted to tell their story.

It's not a story you often hear on the news.

Here were leaders of billion dollar companies prepared to fly to Washington to sell the benefits of investing in Northern Ireland.

They spoke of our education system, our cost competitiveness, of what a great place Northern Ireland is in which to live.  They spoke of our infrastructure, the relationships with our universities, our skills base, our telecommunication's network and even our golf courses.

And though you wouldn't read about it in our local newspapers they lavished praise on our pro-business focussed Executive.

But above all else they spoke of the quality of our young people.

These are companies that don't take their decisions based on sentiment but on sound economics.

And more and more are coming here when they see what we have to offer. 

They see something that sometimes we overlook.

They see the potential of our people.

Listening to them one by one recount their experiences of investing in Northern Ireland you could not but be proud and confident about the future that we are building.

It has been said, “It is not easy to plant trees when we won't live to see it's flowering”.  But, we don't plant a tree for ourselves, he plants it for future generations.

We are descended from a people who cut out a civilization from the bogs and forests and through toil and imagination grew our reputation as a powerhouse of industry and trade.

Let us be prepared to do as our forefathers did and construct a new Northern Ireland. 

Let us make up for the wasted years and make this land of our birth great once again.

The conflict has ended, but still too much division remains. 

Too much energy has been wasted by strife.

Just think of the potential that can be unleashed if we firmly establish a way to work together as one united community.

This last year our sportsmen and women led the way and made us proud of their achievements.

We must follow their lead and make Northern Ireland the place that it can be, not just for this generation but for the next.

Just look around to see how the city of Belfast has been transformed - the builders' cranes, new domes, spires and pillars rise on the skyline.  International investment takes a welcome hold and international visitors increasingly walk our streets.

A stable, peaceful and prosperous Northern Ireland is within our reach.

Let us work together to make it happen.

A second term, as the largest party in Northern Ireland, is within our grasp.

A mandate to keep Northern Ireland moving forward is what we seek. The opportunity to strengthen the Union, to defend our heritage, our  culture and values - to serve all the people of Northern Ireland. 

The cost of defeat is too great.    

Failure is not an option.  We must stay focused on our vision for the future.  

Victory next May will not be handed to us; we must earn it; we must deserve it.

We will not win alone but together - each one of us in this hall today- taking nothing and no-one for granted.

Door by door and vote by vote, we must win, not for ourselves, but for unionism, and for Northern Ireland.

So let us go out from conference, resolved to take this campaign across the length and breadth of the Province.

The starting pistol has sounded. From Monday, and for the next five and a half months, let victory in this contest be our cause and our crusade.

Let us take our case to the people, secure a victory next May, and keep Northern Ireland moving forward."


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